How CNN Changed My Life

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CNN Press Pass

Some of you asked to know more about the “Throwback Thursday” photo of my CNN press pass (pictured above). Although my two-week stint with CNN seemed a mere blip on the screen, it completely changed my life.

After graduate school, I moved to Singapore as a newly-wed in January 1994. The following spring my husband’s job transferred to Beijing. I joined him there after a brief vacation to visit my family in the U.S. I arrived in China that April inexplicably obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, having read an old People Magazine on the return flight. How had I not heard about the sensational trial and all of the hoopla surrounding it?

Rather than settling in smoothly as I had always done before, I felt isolated and wrestled with my sense of self. Very quickly, I became depressed. My journals from this time show how CNN became a symptom of my depression and, incredibly, the cure of it, just three months later.

China Journals

(Above: One of my journals open an entry about my work with CNN in Beijing in 1995.)

A journal entry from June 8, 1995 is below:

It’s so lame that I have all of this free time right now, yet I can’t seem to get myself to do anything with it. For someone with so many dreams and ‘goals,’ it’s bizarre that I am completely incapable of following through with even just one of them. I sent that fax to CNN, but I’m sure in my mind that they won’t call. I know I need to get fluent in Chinese, yet I stay at home all day and don’t even try to read the local papers or listen to the local newscasts. It’s pathetic. I mean, look at all these seemingly pathetic characters who appear as guests on Donahue, Oprah, etc. Half of them got their shit together long enough to write a book. I’ll be turning 27 and I don’t have a real focus…I’m into this TV journalism thing, yet I doubt anyone would hire me.

Perhaps, lame to say, watching Larry King Live’s 10th Anniversary Special was beneficial, because I learned that many famous and talented people also lack confidence and are still fearful to face the camera and audiences that idolize them. On Larry King, I’m embarrassed to admit how wonderful it really is to watch his live interviews….I also seem to have developed something of a crush on Barry Scheck, O. J. Simpson’s attorney for DNA issues.

Completely unmotivated to do anything else, I watched endless coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN International in our apartment, while my husband traveled for work. Who knows how far downhill I would have gone had CNN not responded to my fax? Luckily, CNN called me, and it became the catalyst for a remarkable change in my life.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing for two weeks in September 1995. CNN devoted significant coverage to it, because then First Lady Hillary Clinton was attending, despite very loud calls for a boycott due to Chinese human rights violations. At the conference, Clinton took the government to task for its treatment of young girls and made the iconic statement “that human rights are women’s rights — and women’s rights are human rights.” (The full text of her speech is here and a video here.)

CNN temporarily augmented the local bureau with network heavyweights Judy Woodruff, Larry Register, and Richard Roth, and a handful of locals, including me. My job was to watch, read, and summarize Chinese media coverage of the conference, so that the CNN team could keep its pulse on the extent of Beijing’s censorship. At first, it simply got me out of the apartment. It didn’t take long, however, for that walk down the hallway to become a walk out of my depressive state.  As I wrote on September 18th, 1995:

Last Friday was my last day at CNN, but it was incredible!! Most notably, Judy Woodruff and Larry Register gave me quite a lot of responsibility by allowing me to single-handedly select three short clips of young people giving their impressions of the Conference…

I will never forget the interview with an eleven-year-old Nigerian girl…Her speech was slow, and deliberate – she chose words carefully and spoke with intelligence about the government having to listen to the voices of the people. She said that the platform (the Beijing Women’s Conference) could help bring the voice to the government – but that people must be heard for it to make a difference.

Larry thought it was too harsh…But Judy Woodruff liked it – so it was in. I had no idea that they would close the series with 28 seconds of clips chosen single-handedly by me!!

My work at CNN was quickly followed by a few job offers, including the one I accepted as the China Marketing Manager for an American automotive company. That I had never heard of the field of “marketing” didn’t prevent me from acing my interviews and getting the offer that led to a long and successful marketing career. I remember a question the HR director asked at the end of my first interview: “The women’s conference is coming to Beijing very soon. Have you thought about taking part in some way?”

 “Oh, yes.  I cannot start with your company until after it’s over. I’ll be working for CNN during the conference,” I replied. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

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My Vacation in Haiku

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It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve thought of several blog topics. Yet, nothing really gelled into anything coherent enough.  Since I’m still getting lots of positive feedback about my posts on Laos, particularly about my iPhone photography, I’ve settled on the easiest post of all: my vacation haiku interspersed with photos.

Most of these were written on the flight(s) back home, motivated by my disappointment that I had been on vacation for 10 days and hadn’t written a single poem to commemorate the journey.

I was traveling to visit my step-daughter and her friend, two professionals in their 20’s who wisely and boldly took a four-month sabbatical to enjoy life and create new experiences.  Fittingly, I took my trip to join them with a friend of my own from college, Angela Casey, with whom I had spent time in several Asian countries 20 years ago. Twenty years? Say it isn’t so!

The first haiku is about youth and how many experiences seem wasted on them. Of course, the motivation for this poem isn’t about Erin and Abby. It’s driven by my recent discovery of my old journals as I prepared to write my memoir, and, likewise, having thumbed through more than a thousand travel photos prior to Angela’s first visit here to Vermont to plan this trip.

“Regret” is wisdom
Condemning youth for missing
The signs. Damned hindsight!

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(Above: Me in rural southern China in 1997. Below: Me and Ange at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in April 1995.)
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The next one is about my return with Angela to Beijing after so much time. Some of my feelings and opinions developed during the course of my nearly three years as an ex-pat in Beijing were chronicled in this post a month ago.

Beijing, have you changed?
Wi-Fi. Starbuck’s. House of Cards.
Emperor’s new clothes.

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(Above: Ange and me in a Beijing hotel lobby in 1994. Below: The two of us on Tian’anmen Square a few weeks ago.)

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(Above and below: After nearly 20 years, Beijing was different and the same, all at the same time.)

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Most of our trip was spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. This ancient capital and former French colony is situated along the Mekong River and is still home to dozens of active and well-preserved Buddhist temples. None of the four of us had been to Laos before, so we were all discovering new things. Every day was packed with enough bold color and interesting experiences to last a lifetime.

Many of the subjects that formed these haiku were also described in earlier blog posts. And, certainly, also caught in pictures. If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of these poems, be sure to use the links to get more info.

Along the Mekong,
Bold color and bounty spring
From the river banks.

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(Above: Despite the “dry season”, the Mekong banks were alive with crops and boats. Below: Members of a family that farms eggplant along the river. They graciously let us to use their lean-to for our lunch-time break from kayaking.)

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Morning market throng
Fruits, spices, meats of all hues,
Dizzy the senses.

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(Above: Spices at the Luang Prabang morning market. Below: Just a small section of the market.)

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Each temple yard yields
Countless monks by sunrise to
Walk tourist-lined streets.

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(Above and below: Different perspectives of the “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, a daily ritual at sunrise in Luang Prabang’s historic downtown.)

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Blazing orange robes
Catch sunbeams between the trees
To clothe patient monks.

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Fearful ride atop
Elegant, beautiful “beast.”
Wild elephant ride.

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(Above: My view from atop the elephant as we headed into the river at Elephant Village. Below: Our guide’s photo of me and Erin, after I moved from the seat to the elephant’s head.)

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With the months of preparation and research that went into the trip, including a reunion with Angela and a series of planning sessions, not to mention the work and household planning to accommodate it, it’s amazing how quickly the trip arrived and then was gone. With all of the unforgettable experiences that comprise the journey, there’s still nothing like coming back home to Vermont again.

There and back again.
Like Bilbo’s long adventure,
Nowhere else like home.

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Starbucks and Baozi

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Friday was Ange’s birthday and she awoke, after only about 4 hours of sleep, on a mission. She went directly to the concierge and asked for directions from the Peninsula Hotel to two locations — the closest Starbuck’s and the closest shop with baozi. “Bao” means “bread.” This makes sense, since these small breakfast dumplings have a skin that is breadier than most Chinese dumplings (they also have delicious pork inside). Luckily, the concierge drew a handy little map, making both purveyors easy to locate. Of course, we went in search of the coffee first.

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As you might have guessed already, this post isn’t about our breakfast, per se. Instead, it’s about how the two components of our breakfast really reflect the dichotomy of modern China, at least for me. Having a Starbucks on many Beijing street corners is the inevitable evolution of things here. The quest for things foreign and the embrace of controlled capitalism, combined with the humongous domestic market, made it inevitable. It was Avon and McDonald’s back in the early 80’s. Then, it was General Motors and Motorola when I lived here in the 90’s. Now, it’s Starbucks and Apple stores, and, can you believe it, even “House of Cards?”

The common thread of most of the Western things found here, then and now, is that they are largely materialistic and deemed relatively harmless by the government. Why not give your growing population of consumers these foreign goods that are, in many cases, actually made in China? What the Chinese have been less welcoming of is free thinking and other threatening Western ideas. At the turn of the previous century there was a slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Learn more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Zhidong.

That this sentiment hasn’t really changed all that much manifested itself during my short stopover in Beijing in an interesting way. It was amazing to find free Wi-Fi everywhere, along with the Starbucks and iPhones to go with it. However, imagine my frustration upon discovering that Facebook was blocked and I was unable to upload my selfies in front of the likeness of Chairman Mao and those cute lion statues. In short, China’s lack of tolerance prevented me from alerting my nearly 500 “friends” that I had returned to my old stomping ground.

Little did I know that the Chinese government has been blocking access to Facebook since 2009, when it figured out that separatists in its far northwestern Xinjiang province had been using it to communicate with its followers to coordinate demonstrations against the government.

Of all the things that could frustrate me about Beijing (like taking over an hour to navigate the airport bureaucracy to track down our luggage, the ridiculously tight security presence on Tiananmen Square, and the prevalent line-cutting mentality of the Chinese), what does it reveal about me that blocking my access to Facebook was the only thing that really irked me?

Getting back to Starbucks, it strikes me that the green and white mermaid symbol alerting passers-by to the availability of little cups of familiar, high quality, but extremely high priced, “joe” is also a fitting symbol of the modern service industry, the new millennium, youth, and capitalism, all at once.

For all the ways that Beijing had changed over the 18 years that I was away, the essence of the city and the comfortable feeling it gives me were the same. The amazing food. The flashes of color. The welcoming nature of the people. It honestly still felt like home. When I asked, “Ni hao?” (“How are you?”) to nearly everyone I passed, they all paused, smiled broadly and said, “Ni hao.” Imagine if I had said, “How are you?” to everyone I passed in New York City. They would probably have me committed.

The little mom and pop shops nestled in between the larger modern stores, like the one where we ate our baozi, are further evidence that the essence of old China still remains. The friendly proprietors invited us to sit at their sole outdoor table, as if we were old friends. As we sat, happily drinking our Starbucks and eating our dumplings, dozens of well-dressed workers in their twenties and thirties stopped in to get baozi, soy milk, and other breakfast delicacies to go, as they hurried off to work.

After a very satisfying breakfast, in more ways than one, Angela stood up, turned to me and said, “Starbucks and baozi. My job is done. Sharon, you take it from here.” I steered us purposefully in the direction of the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. And, it was not lost on me that this part of our morning’s itinerary represented another dichotomy in Chinese history, the legacies of feudal times and the Maoist era….

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Throwback Thursday

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It’s my ultimate “Throwback Thursday.” I landed in Beijing earlier today, after more than 17 years away. There’s at least one volume that could (and will) be written about the nearly three years of my life spent here. The short version is that I started out in a major depression and climbed my way out, bit by bit, until I started to resemble the confident woman that I am today. True story: In my first five months in Beijing, I went from obsessively watching the OJ Simpson trial on CNN to actually working for CNN. And, I still have my press pass to prove it.

Thankfully, I haven’t come back alone. I’m with an old college pal from my George Washington University days, Angela Casey. It’s odd that we took so many of the same courses with the same professors and were only one year apart in school, yet didn’t meet until my senior year. Ange graduated from GW with a degree in East Asia Studies (China Concentration) in 1991. Mandarin was also my language, but my degree was International Affairs (Mandarin Chinese) in 1990. Once we finally met, we became fast and close friends.

After school, to say that we kept in touch is an under-statement. We both fell for the same guy over the summer of 1991, in D.C. We met up in San Francisco in 1993, then Beijing in 1994, and Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore in 1995. And, finally, at my home in Vermont in 1996. After that, we inexplicably lost touch at some point in late 1999 or early 2000, when Ange went off to the UK and I moved to Arizona.

We credit Facebook for rekindling our friendship late last summer. There were several Angela Caseys on FB, but only one with the graphic of bamboo as a profile picture with the statement that she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and French. I knew immediately that she was my Ange.

Shortly after re-becoming friends, Ange drove up from her childhood home in the Poconos to stay with me and Bruce in Vermont. Over that October weekend, we plotted this Asia trip to meet up with my step-daughter Erin in Laos. It seemed only fitting to begin this new journey where we met up 20 years ago, right here in Beijing.

I still need to reflect on the vast differences — and the similarities — of the Beijing in 2014 with the one I knew well between 1994 and 1997, before I can say anything meaningful about it. Not to mention how different we both are as women in our mid-40’s compared to the exuberant self-proclaimed world travelers we were in our mid-20’s. However, what I can share now are a few photos and will add more soon.

And, I can say from the very bottom of my heart that there’s no one I’d rather come back to Asia with after all this time. Thanks, Ange, for stepping back into your role as willing partner in crime (so to speak) after such a long time.

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Where Are You Going?

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Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey.  I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.

About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China.  Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here.  It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.

In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:Image

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I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled  “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau.  However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing. 

Beijing.  Beijing.  What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country?  You’re no longer protected from the peasants.  Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you.  You have it all, don’t you?  All but clean air.  I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new.  The results of ‘development’.  You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok.  You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two.  You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon.  Or had you bothered to consider this?

And, look at your populace.  Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters.  They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation.  And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers.  They’ll be real businessmen someday.  But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you?  Your perms are a little too dry, yet.  And your shoes a little too dirty.  But you’re almost there.

You will arrive soon.  But where is it that you think you’re going?  You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination.  But what are your goals?  What is your raison d’être?  Your 9th five-year plan.  What does that say?  What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future?  I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit.  I’m just an observer here.  But I am thinking deeply as I observe.  I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers.  And I sympathize with their confusion.

They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised.  You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something.  You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell.  What kind of ownership is that anyway?  You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays.  And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike.  You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”.  Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.”  You fear another Tiananmen.  Or at least you want your children to fear that.  It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it?  That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself.  So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all.  But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians.  They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it.  Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman.  “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man.  The icon of Mao.  The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia.  “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.”  Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth.  Mao, you will fade, though.  You will not live in human memory 10,000 years.  You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?

So, Beijing, where did you say you were going?  Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you?  We are all interested.  And we’re almost as confused as you are.

Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years. 

Testing. 123. Testing.

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This is a test of my ability to publish a blog post on a mobile device.

I am heading to Beijing with my long-time great friend, Angela Casey, on Wednesday.

We’re planning an amazing “Throwback Thursday” photo shoot on Tiananmen Square as soon as we get organized (and after we polish off some Peking Duck at the Peninsula Hotel),

Then, Ange turns 44 on Friday and we head over for “one night in Bangkok,” before getting to our actual destination on Saturday morning, Luang Prabang, Laos.

We are extremely stoked to be meeting up with the Two Mermaids, Erin Farr and Abigail Siegel, in Luang Prabang.

Adventure highlights in Laos will include a day hiking and kayaking to the Pak Ou Caves and Kuangsi Waterfall, an unforgettable trip to an elephant preserve, and Laotian cooking lessons.

We’re expecting the unexpected and hope for an unforgettable trip. I promise to post thoughts and photos as often as Wi-Fi affords me the opportunity.